Concerning Consciousness: a look at near death and out of body experiences

The nature of consciousness is complex. Today, an overarching interpretation of the phenomena references awareness and subjectivity to experience[1]. In asking oneself if one has consciousness, does not the first question resemble something of ‘am I here’? This ‘I’ meaning a real thing that is subject to the ‘here’ that is somewhere experiences can be had. If we assume awareness and subjectivity to experience are key to consciousness, somewhere down the line the question of what consciousness is arises. Is it some soul type entity? An emergent property of the brain’s wiring? This question leads me to investigate Near Death and Out of Body experiences in an attempt at gaining some enlightenment.

So what are Near Death Experiences (NDEs) and Out of Body Experiences (OBEs)? The two are closely tied because NDEs frequently lend themselves to OBEs. Take the term literally: ‘an out of body experience’ and here is the answer. An OBE is the supposed experience of leaving one’s own human body in some form whilst a NDE is an experience where one has a very close brush with death, and in many cases has an actual legal or clinical death, but returns to the living world later.
These experiences have long existed in human society. Some think the ancient cave painting of Lascaux, France, for example, represent a shamanic OBE[2]. Closer to our time, OBEs are purported to be achieved in numerous ways: astral projection (a supposed mystical experience involving leaving the human body via an ‘astral’ body into the astral world); NDEs; meditation; drug use; seemingly spontaneously occurrences; and many more.

 

Does it sound fishy? Leaving the body? You’re not alone. In the 19th century many writers referred to OBEs as an illusory experience – one based on imagination[3]. One researcher, Richet (1887)[4], wrote that it is a mistake to assert a reality to experiences of travelling to distant places via an OBE; the reality is rather a matter of an overactive imagination.
There is frequent stigma around type of experience which hold some paranormal associations[5].How can someone really leave their body? Is it mere hocus-pocus?
Keeping in touch with ‘OBEs as imaginative’, though through a non-negative lens , are theorists and researchers such as Blackmore. Blackmore (1984)[6] presents a ‘models of reality’ explanation for OBEs. This asserts that, at any given time, human cognition creates several models of reality – the dominant model being typically built up from sensory input from the ‘outside world’. Each person creates their own reality based on their interpretations of the world perceivable world. Non-dominant realities are created purely through recollection and imagination – a dream world works as an example of this. Blackmore hypothesises that in an OBE, an individual has lost a significant level of sensory input and thus switches to a normally non-dominant model built on imagination. The reality switches. To see evidence supporting this first hand, you can try this self-study: (creating real hallucination without drugs – link).

The theory is interesting; it provides answers to why OBEs include themes non-fitting with the ‘real’ world (e.g. flying to mystical places[7]), and why OBEs share similarities with dream experiences – which are largely regarded as formed by human cognition/imagination (e.g. Hobson, Pace-Schott and Stickgold, 2000[8]).
Explanations referencing a component of imagination are favoured within science, but is this enough? If you’ve ever had a NDE or an OBE you might have found your life totally changed, and the experience as completely authentic.

In his book “The Projection of the Astral Body” (1965)[9], Muldoon described his first OBE, an astral projection. He emerged from his body, watched the room around him come into focus and finally flew around his house for fifteen minutes before re-entering his physical body. The experience, and future ones, was real for him. The astral body acts as a replica physical body, and is able to experience both the physical and astral world. So said, anyhow. The legitimacy of this astral body is problematic in that it relies upon the notion that a non-physical thing can be equipped with tools to experience the physical world[10]. Isn’t perceiving the ‘real’ world reliant on sensory organs that manifest in a physical body? Not all OBEs are reliant on an astral body, however. Whilst Crookall’s (1961)[11] research found participants to mostly refer to a cord that connected their astral body with their physical body, Green (1968)[12] found only 4% of participants referring to a cord in comparison with 80% referring to being a disembodied consciousness. Possibly this is related to the types of participants interviewed. Those engaging in astral projection are, by nature of astral projection more likely to experience an astral version of themselves rather than in other types of OBEs. Yet, is the issue still not the same? People existing as ‘disembodied consciousnesses’ still report seeing the physical world. How? Perhaps our understanding of the physical world is what is warped.
There have been attempts to (dis)prove the reality of OBEs by testing whether the psychical world is really assessable to those in an OBE. In 2008 the AWARE (AWAreness during REssurection) study was formed[13]. Here, patients in a cardiac arrest ward are asked to identify and describe a visual target placed near the ceiling of the ward after having a cardiac arrest. OBEs are common among persons having cardiac arrests[14], and thus situating the study in a cardiac arrest ward seems logical. Though, as yet, no significant findings for accurate recall have occurred – those having an OBE either inaccurately recall the visual target, are not focussed on searching for the target, or simply have their eyes closed and cannot really ‘see’ anything in the room.

So, is there any research supporting OBEs? Much research has failed to find positive results, however one famous case by Tart (1968)[15] held that a woman successfully identified a five digit code placed on the ceiling whilst in an OBE. However, disturbances in the woman’s brain scans suggest that she was awake for some part of the study, and that in this time space she climbed the room to discover the code. The evidence looks bleak.
If OBEs are mere forms of imagination, why are OBEs – particularly in NDEs – so life changing? Green (1968)[16] reports that those who have had an NDE tend to describe increased mental clarity. More recently, Klemenc-Ketis (2013)[17] found that, among individuals who have suffered cardiac arrest, those who reported having an OBE held more life-changing attitudes afterwards such as an appreciation for life and an increased love for family and friends.

Further to this, some NDEs involve interaction with a god even in non-god-believing people. Christians are more likely to report seeing Jesus whilst Hindus, Krishna[18]. This could suggest that the god-experience is not real (as if it were, the god would lack cultural differences). However, NDEs can often be ineffable[19], so perhaps the meeting with ‘god’ is real, and it is in post-OBE interpretation, or in attempts at conveying the experience to another person that leads to culturally specific aspects. Again, evidence for the reality of exceptional human experiences is limited, but their life-changing effects are not.

 

Let’s take a look at NDEs. The role of imagination is hard to justify when someone has suffered a clinical death – a death which, in all legality, counts someone as ‘dead’[20]. When the individual is claimed to be dead referencing explanations that rely on brain cognition do not work, because the brain is also dead. Some argue that it in the ‘returning to life’ stage that the NDE is had, though Fenwick and Fenwick (2008)[21]claim: “if an experience occurred during the gradual return to consciousness, it would be confusional, and not the lucid story which is characteristic of the temporary death experience”. Again this area sees much speculation. Blackmore (1993)[22] presents the ‘Dying Brain Hypothesis’. This psychological approach looks at the cognitive productions of a dying brain. The theory asserts that all the experiences had in a NDE are the products of a brain going through various stages of death. It is widely reported in scientific journals and artistic portrayals alike that the end brings a ‘tunnel’. Go towards the light at the end of the tunnel. Blackmore attributes this tunnel to a closing down of the visual system: what is seen is not a glimpse of an afterlife, it is the pinhole remnants of our vision. Blackmore’s theory has had enormous influence in the investigations of NDEs: each stage in the process of a dying brain correlates with a stage that is frequently found in recollections of NDEs. Others have said the theory is weak because it does not account for a real ‘dying brain’ more instead a ‘disinhibited brain’[23]. The brain is never dying, it is instead disinhibited – in a state which is able to return to ‘normal’[24]. What is being reported is not a glimpse of what exists when dead; it is an experience of a brain not working as usual. This idea is not in complete opposition to what Blackmore professes (both ideas still attribute the experiences to a brain in an altered state) though one theory talks of a dying-then-dead brain, and one an alive brain.

That both ideas include a brain that is at some point alive is important to note. Another interesting point to raise is that, in a similar vein to the need of physical organs for perception of the physical world, here life is needed for memories to form whilst experiences are being had. When the brain is dead, it is dead. So it would seem that the brain is not dead when having the NDE.

 

What becomes important to me is an area of this topic that is irrefutable. Whether these exceptional human experiences (OBEs and NDEs) are grounded in a scientifically proved reality or not, one cannot deny the personal reality of them. If one experiences visiting a ghost ship on a planet in another galaxy, it matters not whether this is externally or internally created, the experience exists as… an experience. Rather than assuming that an OBE must be a physical out of body experience to be interesting, credible, or worth researching… If the experience is internally created via the brain and feels so real at the same time, what does this say about the nature of consciousness?

Here I’ll bring in the idea of ‘altered states of consciousness’.

Exceptional human experiences can be understood as an altered state of the human brain. ‘Soul flight’ is a type of OBE frequently found in shamanistic tribal rituals[25]. The use of rhythmic drums and drugs induces a brain state that causes an OBE[26]. Tribe members report flying through a spirit world in soul form often to receive information of use to the tribe – e.g. they will plant their crops where spirits advice them to[27].

Is soul-flight, like astral projection may be, internally created? Winkleman (2000)[28]found that altered brain wave patterns in shamans allow for the synchronisation of frontal brain areas, something that, in effect, produces visionary experiences.

Similar brain states are achievable through non-shamanic drug use. There is a clear link between psychedelic substance use and transpersonal/paranormal experiences. For this, neurochemical models of exceptional human experiences have been developed (e.g. Luke and Kittenis, 2005[29]). Similarly drugs have been tested for their role in exceptional human experiences (like OBEs). Ketamine – which is known for its inducing of OBEs, for example, has been found to change the dynamics of the vestibular system. It is thus professed that this area of the brain is linked with the experience of an OBE[30]. When changes in the brain so obviously link to changes in perception, it feels even more likely that OBEs are imaginary. But… doesn’t this also mean that OBEs are also natural, and inherent to being human if achieved relatively easily? Winkleman (2000)[31] postulates that the human capacity for exceptional human experience appears to be a part of a fundamental biological function.

 

I will not dismiss the strongly held idea that in OBEs a soul, or non-physical entity, or disembodied consciousness has indeed left the physical body and I think trying to investigate and (dis)prove the experience in a purely scientifically manner is questionable. So what if there is a huge component of imagination in OBEs? Humans harness their imagination in day-to-day life – every moment we are conscious and awake we create the world around us based on own concepts[32]. There’s a great series called ‘The Brain with David Eagleman’ that explains this in a very accessible way. So, stigmatising the role of imagination in OBEs is foolish; we always see with a mix of input from external stimuli and the imagination. Would accepting this allow for a different way of investigating OBEs and NDEs?
Additionally, there is stigma around OBEs because for a lot of people their existence – their ‘self’ – is situation inside the human body. Where? In the heart, in the brain? Just behind the eyes? If you ask yourself right now, where is the ‘you’, where would you place it?

The idea of a shifting self is not an inconspicuous idea; gymnasts use the technique of changing their point of view (e.g. when performing a floor routine) so as to shift their perspective to ‘outside’ the body, as if in a bird’s eye view. Such ability can allow for greater performance[33], and exemplifies how easily the sense of self can shift. Similarly people who meditate can learn to reform their understanding of the self and consciousness and dismiss the notion that a self is meant to reside ‘within’ the body[34]. Personally, for the most part I have a  sense that ‘I’ ‘am’ somewhere behind the eyes, however through meditation and a lot of thinking about the notion of the ‘singular self’ I have managed to alter this location to various places, e.g. in the breath and floating a metre or so above the head. So… Where are you? (Better yet: is there even a ‘you’? Though, that’s a whole new conversation).

 

Around here I’m going to round up this collection of thoughts. This topic is huge, and thus I’ve touched on a very limited bit of it. I’ve introduced OBEs and NDEs as: produced by human imagination; a result of a dying or disinihibted brain; as ‘real’; as life changing; and as a matter of an altered state of consciousness. For me, I find it hard not to explain OBEs as having an imaginary component, because imagination is so key to how we’ve always experienced life. A quick look at a book of simple illusions is enough to show this – the brain brings in something of its own when taking in the ‘outside’ world. We cannot typically see the world’s stimuli at face value. Everything is specially edited by the human brain to work for humans. Of course, feeling as if one has left the body is a bit more than being tricked by an illusion, but the principle stands the same. Imagination is everywhere.
Furthermore, by separating from the notion that OBEs and NDEs need to be proved or disproved ‘scientifically’ limits one’s understanding of the nature of consciousness. Regardless of whether the NDE or OBE is happening in ‘actuality’, it cannot be denied that something is happening. Investigating how the experience feels offers a deeper level of interaction with what consciousness is and is capable of. This brings me back to how I started. What is consciousness? It’s beyond the scope of this chain of thoughts to answer that without adding another three thousand words, though I think that, at least, what consciousness is capable of has been glimpsed at.
Perhaps for another day!

 

Quick note: this chain of thoughts essay was originally written as an academic essay for a module called ‘Consciousness’ I once upon a time undertook at the University of the West of England. In an attempt at making it accessible to readers not familiar with this area of consciousness I’ve vastly rewritten it. Hopefully it has been instigated an interest in the topic.

Another quick note: I recently watched the series The Brain with David Eagleman. Honestly, it is so well written and produced. If you can get your hands on it, I’d highly recommend watching it as an introduction to various topics concerning the brain.

One final note: my opinions are constantly changing and as such I never hold suspicions as firm beliefs. This piece of writing is also based on areas of research I’ve found interesting and relevant to NDEs and OBEs, but there is a large amount extra that I haven’t the space to go into. I’ve never had a full-on OBE myself, neither have I had a NDE, and so my writing is limited in that I cannot possibly know what it is like to have an OBE. Saying this, I have been attempting to have one for many years (on and off) and if you’d like to try to, there are hundreds of videos on YouTube to listen to for guided astral projection (and the like). Simply type in ‘guided out of body experience’ and take a pick.

 

 

 

References:

[1] Blackmore, S (2010) Consciousness: an introduction. Hodder Education.

 

[2] Stutley, M. (2003) Shamanism: an introduction, Routledge.

 

[3] Alvarado, C. S. (1992). The Psychological Approach to Out-Of-Body Experiences: A Review of Early and Modem Developments. The Journal of psychology, 126(3), pp. 237-250.

 

[4] Alvarado, C. S. (1992). The Psychological Approach to Out-Of-Body Experiences: A Review of Early and Modem Developments. The Journal of psychology, 126(3), pp. 237-250.

 

[5] Thompson, R.C. (2010), “Am I Going to See a Ghost Tonight?”: Gettysburg Ghost Tours and the Performance of Belief, Journal of American Culture, 33(2), pp. 79.

 

[6] Blackmore, S. (1984). A psychological theory of the out-of-body experience. Journal of Parapsychology, 48, pp. 201-218

 

[7] Peterson, R. (2013). Out-of-body experiences: how to have them and what to expect. Hampton Roads Publishing.

 

[8] Hobson, J. A., Pace-Schott, E. F., and Stickgold, R. (2000). Dreaming and the brain: toward a cognitive neuroscience of conscious states. Behavioral and brain sciences, 23(6), pp.793-842.

 

[9] Muldoon, S. and Carrington, H. (1965). The Projection of the astral body. London, Rider & Company.

 

[10] Murray, C. (2009) Psychological scientific perspectives on out-of-body and near-death experiences. Nova Science Publishers, New York.

 

[11] Crookall, R. (1961). The Study and Practice of Astral Projection. London: Aquarian Press.

 

[12] Green, C.E. (1968). Out-of-the-Body Experiences. London, Hamish Hamilton.

 

[13] Horizon Research Foundation (2014) An Interview with Dr Sam Parnia on the Aware Study 2010. Available from: http://www.horizonresearch.org/main_page.php?cat_id=233[Accessed 15/12/2013].

 

[14] Parnia, S., Waller, D. G., Yeates, R., and Fenwick, P. (2001). A qualitative and quantitative study of the incidence, features and aetiology of near death experiences in cardiac arrest survivors. Resuscitation, 48(2), pp. 149-156.

 

[15] Tart, C. T. (1968). A psychophysiological study of out-of-the-body experiences in a selected subject. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 62(3).

 

[16] Green, C.E. (1968). Out-of-the-Body Experiences. London, Hamish Hamilton.

 

[17] Klemenc-Ketis, Z. (2013). Life Changes in Patients After Out-of-Hospital Cardiac Arrest. International journal of behavioral medicine, 20(1), pp. 7-12.

 

[18] Blackmore, S (2010) Consciousness: an introduction. Hodder Education.

 

[19] Nelson, K., Mattingly, M., Lee, S., and Schmitt, F. (2006) Does the arousal system contribute to near death experience? Neurology, 66(7), pp. 1003-1009.

 

[20] Fenwick, P. and Fenwick, E. (2008) The Art of Dying. Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, London.

 

[21] Fenwick, P. and Fenwick, E. (2008) The Art of Dying. Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, London.

 

[22] Blackmore, S. (1993) Dying to Live. Science and the Near-Death Experience. London, Grafton.

 

[23] Braithwaite, J. (2008). Near death experience: The dying brain. Skeptic magazine,21(2)

 

[24] Braithwaite, J. (2008). Near death experience: The dying brain. Skeptic magazine,21(2)

 

[25] Winkelman, M. (2000). Shamanism: The neural ecology of consciousness and healing. Greenwood Publishing Group.

 

[26] Krippner, S. C. (2002). Conflicting perspectives on shamans and shamanism: Points and counterpoints. American Psychologist, 57(11), pp. 962-972.

 

[27] Stutley, M. (2003) Shamanism: an introduction, Routledge.

 

[28] Winkelman, M. (2000). Shamanism: The neural ecology of consciousness and healing. Greenwood Publishing Group.

 

[29] Luke, D. P., and Kittenis, M. (2005). A preliminary survey of paranormal experiences with psychoactive drugs. Journal of Parapsychology, pp. 69(2).

 

[30] Wilkins, L. K., Girard, T. A., and Cheyne, J. A. (2011). Ketamine as a primary predictor of out-of-body experiences associated with multiple substance use. Consciousness and cognition, 20(3), pp. 943-950.

 

[31] Winkelman, M. (2000). Shamanism: The neural ecology of consciousness and healing. Greenwood Publishing Group.

 

[32] Nanay, B. (2010). Perception and imagination: amodal perception as mental imagery. Philosophical Studies, 150(2), pp. 239-254.

 

[33] White, A., and Hardy, L. (1995). Use of different imagery perspectives on the learning and performance of different motor skills. British Journal of Psychology, 86(2), pp. 169-180.

 

[34] Travis, F. (2014) Transcendental experiences during meditation practice, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1307(1), pp. 1-8.